It’s been my privilege and my curse to read on the same program at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival with Emanuel Xavier–my privilege because of his incredible talent and my curse because I had to follow him. Shakespeare himself would have sounded dull after hearing Xavier tear through “Americano” with his full Nuyorican Poets Cafe slam creds on display. I didn’t have a chance. But now you have a chance to own his greatest hits, and you should take it even if poetry isn’t your usual jam.
Xavier begins with a foreword in which he encapsulates his childhood sexual abuse, his coming out, and his time as a “pier queen,” hustler and drug user along with his eventual success. But even if he had left those boxes blank, the bare, unvarnished plain truth is all in the work that follows. And this collection is especially well-selected, cherry picking the angriest and most poignant fruit from Xavier’s previous books: Pier Queen, Americano, If Jesus Were Gay, Nefarious, and Radiance.
One of the reasons I like this collection so much is that it’s chronological, allowing the reader to absorb Xavier’s background firsthand and upfront, especially in the selections from Pier Queen and Americano. Pieces like “Bushwick Bohemia” and “Nueva York” stake out his territory and provide a backdrop for the anger of “Americano” and especially “Deliverance,” addressed to the local priest:
Padre, perdóname/but where were you when I was three/getting fucked up the ass by my oldest cousin/Palabras reminding me/“IF YOUR MAMI FINDS OUT/SHE’LL LEAVE YOU/LIKE YOUR DADDY DID!”… Padre, perdóname/for trying to kill off Mamí & her boyfriend/pouring bleach into their soup/thinking maybe he won’t beat her no more/maybe she won’t beat me no more…
But even the earliest of his work strays from this anger into more uplifting themes, such as “Children of Magdalene,” or “To My Mother On The Occasion of Her Sixtieth Birthday,” which sees him tempering his bitterness with love and respect. He also demonstrates his unwillingness to sink back into the patterns of his elders in “Tradiciones.” One of my favorites of his early poems is the beautiful “Legendary,” where he finds some hope by simply looking at his fellow man:
There are Gods amongst us in these ghettos/so black, so fierce,/so brown, so beautiful,/Their time on earth may be as oppressive as ignorance/limited to the demons flowing in their blood/but after safely passing over back to the clouds/
the wind will still carry their auras and prophecies/their bones will still beat drums/for their children to dance
The pieces from If Jesus Were Gay seem to be transitional, with some familiar devices, like dealing with authority figures such as the police officer in “Waiting for God” and the ultimate authority figure in the title poem, “If Jesus Were Gay”. But Xavier extends his reach here, extrapolating his background to society in general, as in “Urban Affection,” a poem dedicated to Walt Whitman, or the AIDS epidemic in “Walking With Angels”. He even disclaims his own worth and status as a poet in the sometimes hilarious “The Death of Art,” again one of my favorites.
All of this gels in the selections from Nefarious and Radiance, in which Xavier truly comes into his own and becomes confident with his voice and talent, assured of his vision. Nowhere is this growth better reflected than in “Step Father,” in which he revists one of the objects of his boyhood hatred, now old and infirm, and he finds within his hatred a measure of pity and even understanding. This also comes through, although to a lesser extent, in “Men Like My Father”. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor, though, as “The Thing About My Pussy” proves. Xavier also tweaks history, pairing news events with the real deaths of queer men and women in “Sometimes We’re Invisible,” a powerful piece he synthesizes at its finish:
mariposas/brown lives/queer lives/trans lives/we fly in our dreams/brighten skies/still know the sun for flight/the wind for guidance/yet sometimes we’re invisible/may our souls linger over fields/prayers/our names/stories remind them/we are worth love/know god
This is an amazing collection that perfectly encapsulates Emanuel Xavier’s growth as a man and as a poet. As I said at the outset, even if poetry isn’t your usual cuppa, you’ll find much of value here. Highly recommended.
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler